Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Matter And Force

( Originally Published 1916 )

IT is the custom of the Professors in the Royal School of Mines in London to give courses of evening lectures every year to working men. The lecture-room holds 600 people; and tickets to this amount are disposed of as quickly as they can be handed to those who apply for them. So desirous are the working men of London to attend these lectures that the persons who fail to obtain tickets always bear a large proportion to those who succeed. Indeed, if the lecture-room could hold 2,000 instead of 600, I do not doubt that every one of its benches would be occupied on these occasions.

It is, moreover, worthy of remark that the lectures are but rarely of a character which could help the working man in his daily pursuits. The information acquired is hardly ever of a nature which admits of being turned into money. It is, therefore, a pure desire for knowledge, as a thing good in itself, and without regard to its practical application, which animates the hearers of these lectures.

It is also my privilege to lecture to another audience in London, composed in part of the aristocracy of rank, while the audience just referred to is composed wholly of the aristocracy of labor. As regards attention and courtesy to the lecturer, neither of these audiences has any-thing to learn of the other; neither can claim superiority over the other. It would not, perhaps, be quite correct to take those persons who flock to the School of Mines as average samples of their class; they are probably picked men—the aristocracy of' labor, as I have just called them. At all events, their conduct demonstrates that the essential qualities of what we in England under-stand by a gentleman are confined to no class ; and they have often raised in my mind the wish that the gentle-men of all classes, artisans as well as lords, could, by some process of selection, be sifted from the general mass of the community, and caused to know each other better.

When pressed some months ago by the Council of the British Association to give an evening lecture to the working men of Dundee, my experience of the working men of London naturally rose to my mind; and, though heavily weighted with other duties, I could not bring myself to decline the request of the Council. Hitherto, the evening discourses of the Association have been delivered before its members and associates alone. But after the meeting at Nottingham, last year, where the working men, at their own request, were addressed by our late President, Mr. Grove, and by my excellent friend, Professor Huxley, the idea arose of incorporating with all subsequent meetings of the Association an address to the working men of the town in which the meeting is held. A resolution to that effect was sent to the Committee of Recommendations; the Committee sup-ported the resolution; the Council of the Association ratified the decision of the Committee; and here I am to carry out to the best of my ability their united wishes.

Whether it be a consequence of long-continued development, or an endowment conferred once for all on man at his creation, we find him here gifted with a mind curious to know the causes of things, and surrounded by objects which excite its questionings, and raise the desire for an explanation. It is related of a young Prince of one of the Pacific islands that when he first saw himself in a looking-glass he ran round the glass to see who was standing at the back. And thus it is with the general human intellect, as regards the phenomena of the external world. It wishes to get behind and learn the causes and connections of these phenomena. What is the sun, what is the earth, what should we see if we came to the edge of the earth and looked over? What is the meaning of thunder and lightning, of hail, rain, storm, and snow ? Such questions presented them-selves to early men, and by and by it was discovered that this desire for knowledge was not implanted in vain. After many trials it became evident that man's capacities were, so to speak, the complement of nature's facts, and that, within certain limits, the secret of the universe was open to the human understanding. It was found that the mind of man had the power of penetrating far beyond the boundaries of his five senses; that the things which are seen in the material world depend for their action upon things unseen; in short, that besides the phenomena which address the senses, there are laws and principles and processes which do not address the senses at all, but which must be, and can be, spiritually discerned.

To the subjects which require this discernment belong the phenomena of molecular force. But to trace the genesis of the notions now entertained upon this subject, we have to go a long way back. In the drawing of a bow, the darting of a javelin, the throwing of a stone-in the lifting of burdens, and in personal combats—even savage man became acquainted with the operation of force. Ages of discipline, moreover, taught him foresight. He laid by at the proper season stores of food, thus obtaining time to look about him, and to become an observer and inquirer. Two things which he noticed must have profoundly stirred his curiosity. He found that a kind of resin dropped from a certain tree possessed, when rubbed, the power of drawing light bodies to itself, and of causing them to cling to it; and he also found that a particular stone exerted a similar power over a particular kind of metal. I allude, of course, to electrified amber, and to the loadstone, or natural magnet, and its power to attract particles of iron. Previous experience of his own muscles had enabled our early inquirer to distinguish between a push and a pull. Augmented experience showed him that in the case of the magnet and the amber, pulls and pushes—attractions and repulsions—were also exerted; and, by a kind of poetic transfer, he applied to things external to himself conceptions derived from himself. The magnet and the rubbed amber were credited with pushing and pulling, or, in other words, with exerting force.

In the time of the great Lord Bacon the margin of these pushes and pulls was vastly extended by Dr. Gilbert, a man probably of firmer scientific fibre, and of finer insight, than Bacon himself. Gilbert proved that a multitude of other bodies, when rubbed, exerted the power which, thousands of years previously, had been observed in amber. In this way the notion of attraction and repulsion in external nature was rendered familiar. It was a matter of experience that bodies, between which no visible link or connection existed, possessed the power of acting upon each other; and the action came to be technically called "action at a distance."

But out of experience in science there grows some-thing finer than mere experience. Experience furnishes the soil for plants of higher growth; and this observation of action at a distance provided material for speculation upon the largest of problems. Bodies were observed to fall to the earth. Why should they do so? The earth was proved to revolve round the sun; and the moon to revolve round the earth. Why should they do so? What prevents them from flying straight off into space? Supposing it were ascertained that from a part of the earth's rocky crust a firmly fixed and tightly stretched chain started toward the sun, we might be inclined to conclude that the earth is held in its orbit by the chain—that the sun twirls the earth around him, as a bog twirls round his head a bullet at the end of a string. But why should the chain be needed ? It is a fact of experience that bodies can attract each other at a distance, without the intervention of any chain Why should not the sun and earth so attract each other? and why should not the fall of bodies from a height be the result of their attraction by the earth? Here then we reach one of those higher speculations which grow out of the fruitful soil of observation. Having started with the savage, and his sensations of muscular force, we pass on to the observation of force exerted between a magnet and rubbed amber and the bodies which they attract, rising, by an unbroken growth of ideas, to a conception of the force by which sun and planets are held together.

This idea of attraction between sun and planets had become familiar in the time of Newton. He set himself to examine the attraction; and here, as elsewhere, we find the speculative mind falling back for its materials upon experience. It had been observed, in the case of magnetic and electric bodies, that the nearer they were brought together the stronger was the force exerted between them; while, by increasing the distance, the force diminished until it became insensible. Hence the inference that the assumed pull between the earth and the sun would be influenced by their distance asunder. Guesses had been made as to the exact manner in which the force varied with the distance; but Newton supplemented the guess by the severe test of experiment and calculation. Comparing the pull of the earth upon a body close to its surface, with its pull upon the moon, 240,000 miles away, Newton rigidly established the law of variation with the distance. But on his way to this result Newton found room for other conceptions, some of which, indeed, constituted the necessary stepping-stones to his result. The one which here concerns us is, that not only does the sun attract the earth, and the earth attract the sun, as wholes, but every particle of the sun attracts every particle of the earth, and the re-verse. His conclusion was that the attraction of the masses was simply the sum of the attractions of their constituent particles.

This result seems so obvious that you will perhaps wonder at my dwelling upon it; but it really marks a turning point in our notions of force. You have probably heard of certain philosophers of the ancient world named Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. These men adopted, developed, and diffused the doctrine of atoms and molecules, which found its consummation at the hands of the illustrious John Dalton. But the Greek and Roman philosophers I have named, and their followers, up to the time of Newton, pictured their atoms as falling and flying through space, hitting each other, and clinging together by imaginary hooks and claws. They missed the central idea that atoms and molecules could come together, not by being fortuitously knocked against each other, but by their own mutual attractions. This is one of the great steps taken by Newton. He familiarized the world with the conception of molecular force.

Newton, you know, was preceded by a grand fellow named John Kepler—a true working man—who, by analyzing the astronomical observations of his master, Tycho Brahe, had actually found that the planets moved as they are now known to move. Kepler knew as much about the motion of the planets as Newton did; in fact, Kepler taught Newton and the world generally the facts of planetary motion. But this was not enough. The question arose—Why should the facts be so? This was the great question for Newton, and it was the solution of it which renders his name and fame immortal. Starting from the principle that every particle of matter in the solar system attracts every other particle by a force which varies as the inverse square of the distance between the particles, he proved that the planetary motions must be what observation makes them to be. He showed that the moon fell toward the earth, and that the planets fell toward the sun, through the operation of the same force that pulls an apple from its tree. This all-pervading force, which forms the solder of the material universe, and the conception of which was necessary to Newton's intellectual peace, is called the force of gravitation.

Gravitation is a purely attractive force, but in electricity and magnetism, repulsion had been always seen to accompany attraction. Electricity and magnetism are double or polar forces. In the case of magnetism, experience soon pushed the mind beyond the bounds of experience, compelling it to conclude that the polarity of the magnet was resident in its molecules. I hold a magnetized strip of steel by its centre, and find that one half of the strip attracts, and the other half repels, the north end of a magnetic needle. I break the strip in the middle, find that this half, which a moment ago attracted throughout its entire length the north pole of a magnetic needle, is now divided into two new halves, one of which wholly attracts, and the other of which wholly repels, the north pole of the needle. The half proves to be as perfect a magnet as the whole. You may break this half and go on till further breaking becomes impossible through the very smallness of the fragments; the smallest fragment is found endowed with two poles, and is, therefore, a perfect magnet. But you cannot stop here: you imagine where you cannot experiment; and reach the conclusion entertained by all scientific men, that the magnet which you see and feel is an assemblage of molecular magnets which you cannot see and feel, but which, as before stated, must be intellectually discerned.

Magnetism then is a polar force; and experience hints that a force of this kind may exert a certain structural power. It is known, for example, that iron filings strewn round a magnet arrange themselves in definite lines, called, by some, "magnetic curves," and, by others, "lines of magnetic force." Over two magnets now before me is spread a sheet of paper. Scattering iron filings over the paper, polar force comes into play, and every particle of the iron responds to that force. We have a kind of architectural effort—if I may use the term—exerted on the part of the iron filings. Here then is a fact of experience which, as you will see immediately, furnishes further material for the mind to operate upon, rendering it possible to attain intellectual clearness and repose, while speculating upon apparently remote phenomena.

The magnetic force has here acted upon particles visible to the eye. But, as already stated, there are numerous processes in nature which entirely elude the eye of the body, and must be figured by the eye of the mind.

The processes of chemistry are examples of these. Long thinking and experimenting has led philosophers to conclude that matter is composed of atoms from which, whether separate or in combination, the whole material world is built up. The air we breathe, for example, is mainly a mechanical mixture of the atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. The water we drink is also composed of oxygen and hydrogen. But it differs from the air in this particular, that in water the oxygen and hydrogen are not mechanically mixed, but chemically combined. The atoms of oxygen and those of hydrogen exert enormous attractions on each other, so that when brought into sufficient proximity they rush together with an almost incredible force to form a chemical compound. But powerful as is the force with which these atoms lock themselves together, we have the means of tearing them asunder, and the agent by which we accomplish this may here receive a few moments' attention.

Into a vessel containing acidulated water I dip two strips of metal, the one being zinc and the other platinum, not permitting them to touch each other in the liquid. I connect the two upper ends of the strips by a piece of copper wire. The wire is now the channel of what, for want of a better name, we call an "electric cur-rent." What the inner change of the wire is we do not know, but we do know that a change has occurred, by the external effects produced by the wire. Let me show you one or two of these effects. Before you is a series of ten vessels, each with its pair of metals, and I wish to get the added force of all ten. The arrangement is called a voltaic battery. I plunge a piece of copper wire among these iron filings; they refuse to cling to it. I employ the self-same wire to connect the two ends of the battery, and subject it to the same test. The iron filings now crowd round the wire and cling to it. I interrupt the current, and the filings immediately fall; the power of attraction continues only so long as the wire connects the two ends of the battery.

Here is a piece of similar wire, overspun with cotton, to prevent the contact of its various parts, and formed into a coil. I make the coil part of the wire which connects the two ends of the voltaic battery. By the attractive force with which it has become suddenly endowed, it now empties this tool-box of its iron nails. I twist a covered copper wire round this common poker; connecting the wire with the two ends of the voltaic battery, the poker is instantly transformed into a strong magnet. Two flat spirals are here suspended facing each other, about six inches apart. Sending a current through both spirals, they clash suddenly, together; reversing what is called the direction of the current in one of the spirals, they fly asunder. All these effects are due to the power which we name an electric current, and which we figure as flowing through the wire when the voltaic circuit is complete.

By the same agent we tear asunder the locked atoms of a chemical compound. Into this small cell, containing water, dip two thin wires. A magnified image of the cell is thrown upon the screen before you, and you see plainly the images of the wires. From a small battery I send an electric current from wire to wire. Bubbles of gas rise immediately from each of them, and these are the two gases of which the water is composed. The oxygen is always liberated on the one wire, the hydrogen on the other. The gases may be collected either separately or mixed. I place upon my hand a soap bubble filled with the mixture of both gases. Applying a taper to the bubble, a loud explosion is heard. The atoms have rushed together with detonation, and without injury to my hand, and the water from which they were extracted is the result of their reunion.

One consequence of the rushing together of the atoms is the development of heat. What is this heat? Here are two ivory balls suspended from the same point of support by two short strings. I draw them thus apart and then liberate them. They clash together, but, by virtue of their elasticity, they quickly recoil, and a sharp vibratory rattle succeeds their collision. This experiment will enable you to figure to your mind a pair of clashing atoms. We have, in the first place, a motion of the one atom toward the other—a motion of translation, as it is usually called—then a recoil, and afterward a motion of - vibration. To this vibratory motion we give the name of heat. Thus, three things are to be kept before the mind—first, the atoms themselves; secondly, the force with which they attract each other; and, thirdly, the motion consequent upon the exertion of that force. This motion must be figured first as a motion of translation, and then as a motion of vibration, to which latter we give the name of heat. For some time after the act of combination this motion is so violent as to prevent the molecules from coming together, the water being maintained in a state of vapor. But as the vapor cools, or, in other words, loses its motion, the molecules coalesce to form a liquid.

And now we approach a new and wonderful display of force. As long as the substance remains in a liquid or vaporous condition, the play of this force is altogether masked and hidden. But as the heat is gradually withdrawn, the molecules prepare for new arrangements and combinations. Solid crystals of water are at length formed, to which we give the familiar name of ice. Looking at these beautiful edifices and their internal structure, the pondering mind has forced upon it the question, How are they built up? We have obtained clear conceptions of polar force; and we infer from our broken magnet that polar force may be resident in the molecules or smallest particles of matter, and that by the play of this force structural arrangement is possible. What, in relation to our present question, is the natural action of a mind furnished with this knowledge? It is compelled to transcend experience, and endow the atoms and molecules of which crystals are built with definite poles whence issue attractions and repulsions. In virtue of these forces some poles are drawn together, while some retreat from each other; atom is added to atom, and molecule to molecule, not boisterously or fortuitously, but silently and symmetrically, and in accordance with laws more rigid than those which guide a human builder when he places his materials together. Imagine the bricks and stones of this town of Dundee endowed with structural power. Imagine them attracting and repelling, and arranging themselves into streets and houses and Kinnaird Halls—would not that be wonderful? Hardly less wonderful is the play of force by which the molecules of water build themselves into the sheets of ice which every winter roof your ponds and lakes.

If I could show you the actual progress of this molecular architecture, its beauty would delight and astonish you. A reversal of the process of crystallization may be actually shown. The molecules of a piece of ice may be taken asunder before your eyes; and from the manner in which they separate, you may to some extent infer the manner in which they go together. When a beam is sent from our electric lamp through a plate of glass, a portion of the beam is intercepted, and the glass is warmed by the portion thus retained within it. When the beam is sent through a plate of ice, a portion of the beam is also absorbed; but instead of warming the ice, the intercepted heat melts it internally. It is to the delicate silent action of this beam within the ice that I now wish to direct your attention. Upon the screen is thrown a magnified image of the slab of ice: the light of the beam passes freely through the ice without melting it, and enables us to form the image; but the heat is in great part intercepted, and that heat now applies itself to the work of internal liquefaction. Selecting certain points for attack, round about those points the beam works silently, undoing the crystalline architecture, and reducing to the freedom of liquidity molecules which had been previously locked in a solid embrace. The liquefied spaces are rendered visible by strong illumination. Observe those six-petalled flowers breaking out over the white surface, and expanding in size as the action of the beam continues. These flowers are liquefied ice. Under the action of the heat the molecules of the crystals fall asunder, so as to leave behind them these exquisite forms. We have here a process of demolition which clearly reveals the reverse process of construction. In this fashion, and in strict accordance with this hexangular type, every ice molecule takes its place upon our ponds and lakes during the frosts of winter. To use the language of an American poet, "the atoms march in tune," moving to the music of law, which thus renders the commonest substance in nature a miracle of beauty.

It is the function of science, not, as some think, to divest this universe of its wonder and mystery, but, as in the case before us, to point out the wonder and the mystery of common things. Those fern-like forms, which on a frosty morning overspread your window-panes, illustrate the action of the same force. Breathe upon such a pane before the fires are lighted, and reduce the solid crystalline film to the liquid condition; then watch its subsequent resolidification. You will see it all the better if you look at it through a common magnifying glass. After you have ceased breathing, the film, abandoned to the action of its own forces, appears for a moment to be alive. Lines of motion run through it; molecule closes with molecule, until finally the whole film passes from the state of liquidity, through this state of motion, to its final crystalline repose.

I can show you something similar. Over a piece of perfectly clean glass I pour a little water in which certain crystals have been dissolved. A film of the solution clings to the glass. By means of a microscope and a lamp, an image of the plate of glass is thrown upon the screen. The beam of the lamp, besides illuminating the glass, also heats it; evaporation sets in, and at a certain moment, when the solution has become supersaturated, splendid branches of crystal shoot out over the screen. A dozen square feet of surface are now covered by those beautiful forms. With another solution we obtain crystalline spears, feathered right and left by other spears. From distant nuclei in the middle of the field of view the spears shoot with magical rapidity in all directions. The film of water on a window-pane on a frosty morning exhibits effects quite as :wonderful as these. Latent in these formless solutions, latent in every drop of water, lies this marvellous structural power, which only requires the withdrawal of opposing forces to bring it into action.

The clear liquid now held up before you is a solution of nitrate of silver—a compound of silver and nitric acid. When an electric current is sent through this liquid the silver is severed from the acid, as the hydrogen was separated from the oxygen in a former experiment; and I would ask you to observe how the metal behaves when its molecules are thus successively set free. The image of the cell, and of the two wires which dip into the liquid of the cell, are now clearly shown upon the screen. Let us close the circuit, and send the current through the liquid. From one of the wires a beautiful silver tree commences immediately to sprout. Branches of the metal are thrown out, and umbrageous foliage loads the branches. You have here a growth, apparently as wonderful as that of any vegetable, perfected in a minute before your eyes. Substituting for the nitrate of silver acetate of lead, which is a compound of lead and acetic acid, the electric current severs the lead from the acid, and you see the metal slowly branching into exquisite metallic ferns, the fronds of which, as they become too heavy, break from their roots and fall to the bottom of the cell.

These experiments show that the common matter of our earth—"brute matter," as Dr. Young, in his "Night Thoughts," is pleased to call it—when its atoms and molecules are permitted to bring their forces into free play, arranges itself, under the operation of these forces, into forms which rival in beauty those of the vegetable world. And what is the vegetable world itself but the result of the complex play of these molecular forces? Here, as elsewhere throughout nature, if matter moves it is force that moves it, and if a certain structure, vegetable or mineral, is produced, it is through the operation of the forces exerted between the atoms and molecules.

The solid matter of which our lead and silver trees were formed was, in the first instance, disguised in a transparent liquid; the solid matter of which our woods and forests are composed is also, for the most part, disguised in a transparent gas, which is mixed in small quantities with the air of our atmosphere. This gas is formed by the union of carbon and oxygen, and is called carbonic acid gas. The carbonic acid of the air being subjected to an action somewhat analogous to that of the electric current in the case of our lead and silver solutions, has its carbon liberated and deposited as woody fibre. The watery vapor of the air is subjected to similar action; its hydrogen is liberated from its oxygen, and lies down side by side with the carbon in the tissues of the tree. The oxygen in both cases is permitted to wan-der away into the atmosphere. But what is it in nature that plays the part of the electric current in our experiments, tearing asunder the locked atoms of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen? The rays of the sun. The leaves of plants, which absord both the carbonic acid and the aqueous vapor of the air, answer to the cells in which our decompositions took place. And just as the molecular attractions of the silver and the lead found expression in those beautiful branching forms seen in our experiments, so do the molecular attractions of the liberated carbon and hydrogen find expression in the architecture of grasses, plants, and trees.

In the fall of a cataract and the rush of the wind we have examples of mechanical power. In the combinations of chemistry and in the formation of crystals and vegetables we have examples of molecular power. You have learned how the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen rush together to form water. I have not thought it necessary to dwell upon the mighty mechanical energy of their act of combination; but it may be said, in passing, that the clashing together of 1 lb. of hydrogen and 8 lbs. of oxygen to form 9 lbs. of aqueous vapor is greater than the shock of a weight of 1,000 tons falling from a height of 20 feet against the earth. Now, in order that the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen should rise by their mutual attractions to the velocity corresponding to this enormous mechanical effect, a certain distance must exist between the particles. It is in rushing over this that the velocity is attained.

This idea of distance between the attracting atoms is of the highest importance in our conception of the system of the world. For the matter of the world may be classified under two distinct heads: atoms and molecules which have already combined and thus satisfied their mutual attractions, and atoms and molecules which have not yet combined, and whose mutual attractions are, therefore, unsatisfied. Now, as regards motive power, we are entirely dependent on atoms and molecules of the latter kind. Their attractions can produce motion, because sufficient distance intervenes between the attracting atoms, and it is this atomic motion that we utilize in our machines. Thus we can get power out of oxygen and hydrogen by the act of their union; but once they are combined, and once the vibratory motion consequent on their combination has been expended, no further power can be got out of their mutual attraction. As dynamic agents they are dead. The materials of the earth's crust consist for the most part of substances whose atoms have already closed in chemical union—whose mutual attractions are satisfied. Granite, for instance, is a widely diffused substance; but granite consists, in great part, of silicon, oxygen, potassium, calcium, and aluminium, whose atoms united long ago, and are therefore dead. Limestone is composed of car-bon, oxygen, and a metal called calcium, the atoms of which have already closed in chemical union, and are therefore finally at rest. In this way we might go over nearly the whole of the materials of the earth's crust, and satisfy ourselves that though they were sources of power in ages past, and long before any creature appeared on the earth capable of turning their power to account, they are sources of power no longer. And here we might halt for a moment to remark on that tendency, so prevalent in the world, to regard everything as made for human use. Those who entertain this notion, hold, I think, an overweening opinion of their own importance in the system of nature. Flowers bloomed before men saw them, and the quantity of power wasted before man could utilize it is all but infinite compared with what now remains. We are truly heirs of all the ages; but as honest men it behooves us to learn the extent of our inheritance, and as brave ones not to whimper if it should prove less than we had supposed. The healthy attitude of mind with reference to this subject is that of the poet, who, when asked whence came the rhodora, joyfully acknowledged his brotherhood with the flower--

Why thou wert there, 0 rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew,
But in my simple ignorance supposed
The self-same power that brought me there brought you.

A few exceptions to the general state of union of the molecules of the earth's crust—vast in relation to us, but trivial in comparison to the total store of which they are the residue—still remain. They constitute our main sources of motive power. By far the most important of these are our beds of coal. Distance still intervenes between the atoms of carbon and those of atmospheric oxygen, across which the atoms may be urged by their mutual attractions; and we can utilize the motion thus produced. Once the carbon and the oxygen have rushed together, so as to form carbonic acid, their mutual attractions are satisfied; and, while they continue in this condition, as dynamic agents they are dead. Our woods and forests are also sources of mechanical energy, because they have the power of uniting with the atmospheric oxygen. Passing from plants to animals, we find that the source of motive power just referred to is also the source of muscular power. A horse can perform work, and so can a man; but this work is at bottom the molecular work of the transmuted food and the oxygen of the air. We in-hale this vital gas, and bring it into sufficiently close proximity with the carbon and the hydrogen of the body. These unite in obedience to their mutual attractions; and their motion toward each other, properly turned to account by the wonderful mechanism of the body, becomes muscular motion.

One fundamental thought pervades all these statements: there is one tap-root from which they all spring. This is the ancient maxim that out of nothing nothing comes; that neither in the organic world nor in the in-organic is power produced without the expenditure of power; that neither in the plant nor in the animal is there a creation of force or motion. Trees grow, and so do men and horses; and here we have new power incessantly introduced upon the earth. But its source, as I have already stated, is the sun. It is the sun that separates the carbon from the oxygen of the carbonic acid, and thus enables them to recombine. Whether they recombine in the furnace of the steam-engine or in the animal body, the origin of the power they produce is the same. In this sense we are all "souls of fire and children of the sun." But, as remarked by Helmholtz, we must be content to share our celestial pedigree with the meanest of living things.

Some estimable persons, here present, very possibly shrink from accepting these statements; they may be frightened by their apparent tendency toward what is called materialism—a word which, to many minds, expresses something very dreadful. But it ought to be known and avowed that the physical philosopher, as such, must be a pure materialist. His inquiries deal with matter and force, and with them alone. And whatever be the forms which matter and force assume, whether in the organic world or the inorganic, whether in the coal-beds and forests of the earth, or in the brains and muscles of men, the physical philosopher will make good his right to investigate them. It is perfectly vain to attempt to stop inquiry in this direction. Depend upon it, if a chemist, by bringing the proper materials together in a retort or crucible, could make a baby, he would do it. There is no law, moral or physical, forbid-ding him to do it. At the present moment there are, no doubt, persons experimenting on the possibility of producing what we call life out of inorganic materials. Let them pursue their studies in peace; it is only by such trials that they will learn the limits of their own powers and the operation of the laws of matter and force.

But while thus making the largest demand for free-dom of investigation-while I consider science to be alike powerful as an instrument of intellectual culture and as a ministrant to the material wants of men; if you ask me whether it has solved, or is likely in our day to solve, the problem of this universe, I must shake my head in doubt. You remember the first Napoleon's question, when the savans who accompanied him to Egypt discussed in his presence the origin of the universe, and solved it to their own apparent satisfaction. He looked aloft to the starry heavens, and said, "It is all very well, gentlemen; but who made these ?" That question still remains unanswered, and science makes no attempt to answer it. As far as I can see, there is no quality in the human intellect which is fit to be applied to the solution of the problem. It entirely transcends us. The mind of man may be compared to a musical instrument with a certain range of notes, beyond which in both directions we have an infinitude of silence. The phenomena of matter and force lie within our intellectual range, and as far as they reach we will at all hazards push our inquiries. But behind, and above, and around all, the real mystery of this universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution. Fashion this mystery as you will, with that I have nothing to do. But let your conception of it not be an unworthy one. Invest that conception with your highest and holiest thought, but be careful of pretending to know more about it than is given to man to know. Be careful, above all things, of professing to see in the phenomena of the material world the evidences of Divine pleasure or displeasure. Doubt those who would deduce from the fall of the tower of Siloam the anger of the Lord against those who were crushed. Doubt equally those who pre-tend to see in cholera, cattle-plague, and bad harvests, evidences of Divine anger. Doubt those spiritual guides who in Scotland have lately propounded the monstrous theory that the depreciation of railway scrip is a consequence of railway travelling on Sundays. Let them not, as far as you are concerned, libel the system of nature with their ignorant hypotheses. Looking from the solitudes of thought into this highest of questions, and seeing the puerile attempts often made to solve it, well might the mightiest of living Scotchmen—that strong and earnest soul, who has made every soul of like nature in these islands his debtor—well, I say, might your noble old Carlyle scornfully retort on such interpreters of the ways of God to men :

The Builder of this universe was wise,
He formed all souls, all systems, planets, particles;
The plan he formed his worlds and Aeons by,
Was—Heavens !—was thy small nine-and-thirty articles!



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com